Being chosen to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl is one of the greatest honours bestowed upon an American pop star. It is also one of the highest pressured. So, to help Lady Gaga on Sunday, we've revisited some of the more memorable performances of The Star Spangled Banner from the last 25 years.
NB: This version of the article was first published in 2016, when Lady Gaga sang the National Anthem. We know she’s doing the half-time show this year and that Luke Bryan is doing the national anthem instead – and that makes the intro quite confusing – but gloss over it. The rest is still worth a read.
Lady Gaga has performed for millions of people all around the planet, but never all at once. This Sunday’s Super Bowl will be one of the biggest audiences she has ever played for – and even a huge star like Gaga will no doubt be feeling the pressure.
So in order to help her out, we’ve done a bit of research on her behalf. We’ve looked back into the history of Super Bowl performances over the last 25 years to see how The Star Spangled Banner has been attempted, and if there is anything she can learn from those artists who have gone before her.
1991 – Whitney Houston (Listen)
Whitney Houston is the mother of the modern national anthem performance. Although many pop stars had performed it before her (making a welcome change from all of the marching bands and children’s choirs of the 60s and 70s), her’s has become the benchmark against which all others are now measured.
It came at a significant time in modern US history. Just two weeks earlier, US Congress had authorised the use of military force in the Middle East to help fight off the Iraqi occupying forces who had annexed Kuwait. Although they were unaware at the time that this would mark the beginning of a much larger and much more complicated conflict in Iraq, The Gulf War was gearing up into full swing and their ass-kicking army had got America all whipped up into an even greater patriotic fervour than usual.
The performance itself though is a surprisingly relaxed affair. Whitney looks like she has just stepped off the set of a calisthenics home workout video, in her sweatband and tracksuit. She stands in the traditional ‘at ease’ stance (legs hip-width apart; hands clasped behind her back), keeps her eyes open and is smiling joyfully throughout.
But let’s be a little more technical about this. Let’s look at her actual vocal performance. What did she do?
We’ve marked out Whitney’s deviations from the main melody (sometimes known as ‘ornaments’) in blue. It may surprise you to see so few, given that Whitney is fondly remembered as being one of pop’s great warblers. It surprised us too. We thought she’d have jumped at the chance to get right up into the rafters and wobble about at the top of her range – but, actually, she shows an honorable restraint.
However, though there may not be many decorations, the few that she did use had a lasting and powerful effect.
The first of them (which you can see happens on the word ‘hailed’) is particularly notable, as this is a little pattern that has been frequently re-employed in subsequent performances of the song.
To quickly explain what happens: instead of singing that first note and holding it, as per the original melody (a G here), Whitney replaces it with a three-note run-down. She starts on the G, and then works her way down to land on a note that is a third below (in this case, an Eb) and holds that one instead. A simple, but pleasant, flourish.
People, it is safe to say, cannot get enough of this shit. Audiences and performers alike love it. There is something about a decorative three-note run that we just go crazy for, and they happen constantly when soul singers do their thing.
Sometimes it’s adding a little stepping-stone note into the middle of a two-note phrase (as you can see Whitney does with ‘gleaming’). It’s the musical equivalent of a wheelchair accessibility ramp, getting rid of the big, unwieldy steps and replacing them instead with a smoother run-down.
Sometimes it’s sticking a three-note run-down and a three-note run-up together, to create a five-note V-shape (as Whitney does with ‘watched’). This helps to give the established melody a more tremulous quality, but it also means that you start and end on the note that everyone is expecting to hear – so it doesn’t sound so strange to our ears.
Whitney uses them sparingly here, but others (as we’ll see) treat them like they’ve got a sixty-a-day habit.
And what of the second half of the song? Well, it’s a bit more showy, but not much more.
The other major musical device that we see Whitney use in this is the appoggiatura (often called a grace note). They’re those tiny little blue notes which are tethered to to the normal-sized ones.
What an appoggiatura does is delay the melody we’re expecting ever so slightly. So where a completely traditional reading of the original score would have a performer move up to the C on the ‘pr-‘ of ‘proof’, Whitney chooses to hold back from reaching that note by starting the word on a different note (here, an Ab – again, a third below the recognised melody) and then jumping up to the ‘correct’ note a fraction of a beat later.
This particular ornament is a massive staple of the modern vocal performances – grace notes often being fired off one after the other, sometimes doubling the number of notes in certain bars and phrases.
The one other flourish she puts in which is worthy of explanation is what she chooses to do with the word ‘free’. It’s a climactic moment of the song – the moment where you’d expect the band to drop out before kicking back in for the final line.
Again, what Whitney does is take what should be a single note (“free”) and replace it with a three-note phrase (“free-ee-ee”). This allows her to reach a higher note than the melody usually allows for, giving her a chance to show off her range and run right the way up to an Ab.
And while an Ab in Whitney’s head voice does sound pretty high, it’s like Barry White compared to what came later.
2002 – Mariah Carey (Listen)
Also held up as a high watermark of national anthem performance, it’s probably no coincidence that this too came at a time of great significance in modern US history. This was the first Super Bowl after 9/11. Still freshly wounded from the attacks on the Twin Towers (and about to embark on Round Two in the Middle East) America was once again gripped by a fiercer-than-usual sense of patriotism.
Clearly they needed somebody special to rouse the country’s spirits at this difficult time, but who could they trust to do it? Whitney Houston had really got stuck in to the drugs by this point in her career (2002 was the year of her infamous “Crack Is Wack” interview) and though a recording of her version of The Star Spangled Banner had been released to raise money for the emergency services in the wake of the attacks, there wasn’t much hope of getting a solid repeat performance out of her at the actual game.
Besides, a new voice had since risen to take the title of Best-Selling Female Artist Of All Time: Mariah Carey.
Here’s what she did.
Mariah has never been known to use just one note where fifteen will do, so you may feel that there’s a disappointing amount of pink on the page. That is simply for clarity’s sake. You see those sorts of Aladdin Sane-style wiggles? They’re called mordents – and they represent a small, often-used, three-note pattern. Where we had the space in Whitney’s score to write her decorations out in full (as they were deployed so rarely), Mariah is using a mordent of some variety in at least eight of the first sixteen bars – so it becomes much easier to mark them out this way.
The ones that are plain zig-zags are upper mordents (indicating that Mariah hits the note, flits up to the note above it and then comes back down); the ones with the little vertical strikethroughs are lower mordents (indicating that Mariah hits the note, drops down to the note below and then jumps back up).
The other big development on the Whitney foundations is the use of triplets. Where Whitney would usually whip through two notes of her three-note phrases quickly and let one of them ring out, Mariah is more likely to use a triplet – which gives equal airtime to each of the three notes in the phrase. You can see her doing it twice in the first four lines alone – even having to force an extra syllable into proudly (‘pur-oudly’) in order to make it work.
Like Whitney’s, the second half of Mariah’s performance gets a little more flamboyant too, but the one stand-out note is this – at that same beat-drop moment.
That note is rarely seen on a vocal score. It’s a B7 and it sits in what’s known as the whistle register. The reason it is rarely seen on a vocal score is that very few singers are able to reach it with any degree of precision. You see, it’s kind of squealing rather than singing. It’s the sort of note that led to all those stories about Mariah Carey CDs opening people’s garage doors. The sort of note that might make a pet dog suddenly start to howl like it trod on a shard of glass. It is almost superhuman, reaching right up into the highest frequencies that we can understand and interpret as individual tones.
This single note is more important than any of the other musical devices she employs in the second half of her version for one very particular reason – and Queen Bey is going to help us demonstrate that further.
2004 – Beyoncé (Listen)
The first half of Beyoncé’s performance doesn’t break any new ground. By and large, it’s the basic melody with a few Mariah-style mordents and a few Whitney three-note phrases thrown in for good measure.
It’s the second half of the song where Beyoncé really comes into her own.
You see those huge chunks of purple at the end of those alternate lines? This is the legacy of Mariah Carey.
Mariah Carey was really the first person to take The Star Spangled Banner and put so much of herself into it that the version became unmistakably hers. In choosing to use the whistle register, she marked out her territory. It meant that only she and perhaps a couple of oldy-timey kettles had any chance of copying it. By virtue of her ridiculous range, she snagged herself an exclusive version of the national anthem.
Though Beyoncé’s personal stamp is not quite so technically challenging (it could be easily copied by other singers) it’s very idiosyncratic.
That six-note segment just above the word “Oh”? That’s a little motif she has used both in Destiny’s Child and in her solo career in various different guises. It is unmistakably Beyoncé. If anyone else tried to drop that particular pattern into their performance, you can bet your boiler money that the reaction would be “Hmmm, she’s just trying to sound like Beyoncé”.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this. Nothing at all. People speaking very highly of Beyoncé’s performance and the people of America do not seem to mind stars applying the personal touch.
When they full-on assault the national anthem though? That’s when things get dicey…
2011 – Christina Aguilera (Listen)
If Gaga wants to avoid anything, she wants to avoid doing a Christina Aguilera.
Aguilera’s faults were two-fold. The first – the more unavoidable of the two – was that she forgot the words midway through. In fairness to Xtina, it’s something that could have happened to anyone. It’s actually kind of surprising that it hasn’t happened to others in the half century of Super Bowl history.
There’s no telling what she should have done in that situation. Cutting out completely would have sounded pretty weird (like the Backstreet Boys did in 2001 when, for some reason, they become all but inaudible when singing “Oh, say does that star spangled…”). It would have risked cocking up the timings as the performance is synchronised to coincide with a flyover of fighter jets, and F-18s aren’t really able to idle outside waiting for Aguilera to get her shit together.
Pushing forward was her only option, but it’s clear that she tries to cover her tracks by slightly altering the lyrics. To make it seem like she wasn’t just repeating a line wholesale, she ended up using the word “reaming” – which sounds utterly filthy.
Messing up the lyrics to your national anthem is an unfortunate faux pas – and it went down pretty badly with many US patriots – but she may have been spared if it wasn’t for her other problem. In true Aguilera style, she treated the well-established and well-loved melody of the American national anthem as her plaything.
Comparing her first sixteen bars with those of Mariah Carey, you can see exactly what we mean.
Look at that. Just look at it. Mariah Carey is not shy about altering a melody line, but Christina Aguilera is shameless. There’s one bar left unmolested at the start of it, and then Christina starts rubbing herself all over it like she’s being sent away for a 25-to-life stretch. Triplets, quintuplets, mordents, trills, turns, six-note slides, grace notes. There’s barely a technique going that Aguilera hasn’t shoe-horned into it before she’s even got halfway through. It’s borderline obscene.
And that’s only the first half. We got so fucking bored and lost trying to semi-accurately notate whatever the hell she’s doing in the second half that we gave up (and we have a pretty high tolerance for examining the minutiae of these sorts of things).
This is as far as we got.
This sort of virtuoso styling is undeniably unique (impressive, too) but it really doesn’t go down too well in this context. Partly that’s because nobody likes a show-off, but it also comes off as rather arrogant – as though Christina Aguilera has figured out what is wrong with their country’s national anthem and that she alone can fix it.
So comprehensive is Aguilera’s reworking that only four bars of the song’s original 32 didn’t suffer at her hand.
To make matters slightly worse, hidden inside her many and varied tweaks and twiddles is an accidental key change. It’s difficult to hear because she is singing a cappella (i.e. without any accompaniment) so there’s no obvious tonal backdrop against which to set it. However, if you try to play along with her on a keyboard, you’ll notice that the final line doesn’t really sit so well in F Major and that, actually, she has gently pitched herself up closer to F# Major.
Singers do have a tendency to turn a little sharp when they push too hard (and Christina is pushing hard – possibly to make up for her earlier screw-up), but the main reason she’ll have struggled to keep herself grounded is precisely because of all those vocal gymnastics. With no backing music to guide her, each one of those trills and warbles help to push her slightly further away from the tonal centre of the melody and, cumulatively, push her almost into another key.
It was a brave effort, but although it has passion and guts, it’s a bit of a shitshow. The only blessing? At least there wasn’t auto-tune on it, like Billy Joel’s version in 2006.
2016 – Lady Gaga
OK, Gaga. So, what can we tell you? What does all of this show?
Well, geopolitically, you’re in pretty good nick. The looming threat of full scale military engagement with the Middle East and/or Russia is present as ever. This – for you, at least – is good news.
Musically, you’ve probably got this too. You have an excellent voice and you are critically adored, but just to reiterate a few points:
– If you ever want to trade in a two-note phrase for a three-note phrase, then go for it. Fill your boots. Stick them in wherever you please. The only one we suggest you avoid is that very first “Oh” (in “Oh, say can you see…”) People like to start a song with something they recognise.
– If you can contain yourself, we’d suggest holding off on the freestyling until the word “hailed”.
– We haven’t mentioned tempo yet, but we’d recommend not falling into the trap that Alicia Keys did in 2013. Whether she found herself overly influenced by the John Lewis Christmas adverts, we couldn’t say for sure – but holy shit, it dragged. Keep it snappy. No-one wants to hear a slow, stripped-back version of the national anthem. Not again. Never again.
– If the network starts giving you grief about padding out your performance to sync with the flyover, do not slow it down. We advise that you continue to sing at a brisk pace and simply stretch out certain sections by adding in a load of bars like Beyoncé did. “…flag was still there”, “…land of the free” and “…home of the brave” all lend themselves well to alterations. We’d advise caution on “…banner still wave” though. It’s been a stumbling block for a few people.
– One thing a lot of people like to do these days is mess around with the final cadence. The traditional Ic-V-I ending is played out, daddi-o. Maybe ask your arranger to try some combination of Major 7th chords walking their way up tone by tone. That seems to go over well.
– It’s also worth listening to Jennifer Hudson’s version. She gets a tad overlooked in favour of the other big ticket names in these Super Bowl retrospectives, but her version was relatively simple and powerfully delivered. Could be exactly the right fit for you.